Saturday, July 22, 2006

. . . Lebanon

BEIRUT, Lebanon - The deadliest day yet in the deepening two-front Middle East crisis claimed more than 70 lives Wednesday in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and northern Israel, with no immediate cease-fire in sight.
"The country has been torn to shreds," a desperate Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, said at a meeting he had called of foreign diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador.

"Is this the price we pay for aspiring to build our democratic institutions?" he said in a bitter and emotional speech. "Can the international community stand by while such callous retribution by the state of Israel is inflected on us?"

In the Lebanese capital, bombs and rockets fell throughout the day, including, Israeli military officials said, a wave of aircraft that dropped 23 tons of explosives on a suspected Hezbollah bunker in the south. The attack appeared to be part of the ongoing effort to kill Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.

In the first land combat in Lebanon during the current conflict, two Israeli soldiers were killed and nine wounded when they were set upon by Hezbollah guerrillas near Naqura. A tank that came to rescue them met with fierce shelling.

Small groups of Israeli commandos have been slipping in and out of southern Lebanon to assess damage and, presumably, locate targets. At nightfall, Israeli tanks and artillery on their side of the border stepped up their barrages, commanders said, for fear that Hezbollah fighters might mount an incursion into Israel.

Two loud explosions boomed over Beirut even as about a thousand U.S. citizens boarded a chartered cruise ship, the Orient Queen, for Cyprus in the first large stage of an evacuation that has left the Lebanese even gloomier about what might lie ahead.

The Lebanese government, weak and divided, is unable to deal with the crisis. Despite the hopes raised by the so-called Cedar Revolution, which ended nearly three decades of Syrian control, the government remains trapped in the sectarian straitjacket of a system that apportions political offices by religion. Siniora has not spoken directly to Nasrallah since the war broke out nine days ago, and dealings between the government and the Hezbollah chief are through the Shiite speaker of parliament, Nabil Berri, who is loyal to Syria.

At the United Nations, the Americans, who have signaled that they will give Israel more time to continue the bombardment of Lebanon to weaken Hezbollah's military power, opposed a French proposal for a Security Council resolution calling for a lasting cease-fire.

"It is very hard to understand from the people calling for a cease-fire how you have a cease-fire with a terrorist organization like Hezbollah," John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador, told reporters.

In Washington, U.S. officials said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice might travel to the Middle East on Sunday, dropping off a team of diplomats to hold talks before continuing to Asia on Thursday on a previously scheduled trip. But she has canceled stops in South Korea, Japan and China, and could return to the Middle East after Asia, the officials said. That schedule could give Israel additional time to shell Hezbollah before having to negotiate a cease-fire.

Before heading to the region, Rice will travel to New York to the United Nations to discuss with Secretary-General Kofi Annan what could happen once there is a cease-fire. The discussions will include Israeli demands for a 12-mile buffer zone in southern Lebanon. There is some talk about placing international troops in that zone and along the Syrian border to prevent the import of more rockets from Syria and Iran.

Sounding an alarm about humanitarian conditions in southern Lebanon - where Israeli bombs, rockets and shells have pounded villages, roads and bridges, much of the population has fled and supplies are running short - Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said the fighting could amount to war crimes.

"The scale of the killings in the region, and their predictability, could engage the personal criminal responsibility of those involved, particularly those in a position of command and control," said Arbour, the former war crimes prosecutor at the World Court.

The violence Wednesday sprawled over both sides of the border, even killing two Israeli Arab brothers, ages 3 and 9, as they played outside in the Galilee town of Nazareth, by one of roughly 120 rockets Hezbollah launched into Israel.

Israeli weaponry rained down on Lebanon throughout the day and into the night, according to Lebanese authorities, killing 63 people, most of them said to be civilians and one known Hezbollah fighter, apparently in the Naqura firefight.

Southern Lebanon, the heartland of Shiite villages dominated by Hezbollah, was particularly hard hit.

In the village of Serifa, a neighborhood was wiped out - 15 houses flattened, 21 people killed and 30 wounded - in an airstrike. The town's mayor, Afif Najdi, called it "a massacre."

A convoy escaping the town was later bombed by warplanes, killing several people and injuring many others.

"I'm all alone and there's no one to save me," said Fatmeh Ashqar, 27 years old. She had severe neck wounds and burns, while a passenger riding with her, Alia Aladeen, had severe head injuries that left her in a coma.

"Maybe she will live, maybe she will not," said Dr. Abdullah Shihab at Jebel al Amel Hospital where at least 18 of the wounded were taken. "But she is ultimately in God's hands." Further north in Ghaziyeh, one person was killed and two were wounded when an Israeli missile struck a building housing a Hezbollah social institution and a neighboring home. And in the village of Salaa, an airstrike destroyed several houses. Six people were killed in an airstrike in the southern town of Nabitiyeh.

In the Bekaa region, another Shiite and Hezbollah stronghold, 11 people were killed in an Israeli airstrike on a four-story building in Nabi Sheet, near the ancient city of Baalbek.

The Israelis also bombed two bases of the pro-Syrian Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, in Sultan Yaacub.

Homes in southern Lebanon received taped phone calls in classical Arabic, warning that they needed to evacuate because strikes would hit home by home. The recording ended by saying it came from the Israeli army.

The Israelis also used a radio station near the border to broadcast warnings into southern Lebanon for residents to leave.

The radio warning also stressed that any truck, including pickups traveling south of the Litani River would be suspected of transporting weapons or rockets and would therefore be a potential target.

While much of bombardment was directed at poor Shiite areas, the Israeli's new emphasis on trucks - they have hit several carrying medical and relief supplies and even cement in the past few days - brought the war home to one of Beirut's most wealthy Maronite Christian areas Wednesday morning.

Warplanes fired rockets into two dirty red trucks carrying water-drilling equipment - apparently mistaken for rocket tubes - parked in a vacant lot, sending the well-to-do neighbors scrambling to their balconies and then, in several cases, loading their cars and heading for the mountains.

An Israeli army spokesman, Capt. Jacob Dallal, told The Associated Press that Israel had hit "1,000 targets in the last eight days - 20 percent missile launching sites, control and command centers, missiles and so forth."

He refused to rule out a land invasion. "There is a possibility - all our options are open," Dallal said. "At the moment it's a very limited, specific incursion but all options remain open."

Brig. Gen. Alon Friedman, a senior army commander, told Israeli army radio: "It will take us time to destroy what is left."

Even as much of the attention was focused on Lebanon, fighting raged between Israelis and Palestinians in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, with 13 Palestinians killed in a series of Israeli raids.

Fierce fighting in the Mughazi refugee camp in central Gaza overnight and into Wednesday morning left at least seven Palestinians dead. By 9 a.m., the lobby at the Aqsa Hospital in nearby Deir al-Balah was jammed with cots holding as many as 60 wounded Palestinians, mostly militia members but some children. The wounds appeared to be mainly shrapnel from tank fire.

A reporter and and a cameraman for al-Jazeera television were slightly wounded covering the fighting and an ambulance driver who attempted to come to their aid was also wounded.

At least three other Palestinians - one a woman - were killed in other incidents.

In the West Bank city of Nablus, about 50 Israeli armored vehicles, including tanks and bulldozers demolished a Palestinian security compound and a half-dozen other Palestinian government buildings.

-- JAD MOUAWAD, The New York Times


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